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Rwanda's youth confront legacy of 1994 genocide 30 years on

April 8, 2024

The shadows of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, where Hutu militants executed members of the Tutsi minority, are still present 30 years on. How do youths navigate the legacy of a tragedy that claimed over a million lives?

Boys in Rwanda stand next to a pole with the skyline of Kigali in the background
Does 'Never Again' really mean the same thing to Rwanda's youth today?Image: PHIL MOORE/AFP/Getty Images

Rwanda is marking the 30th anniversary of the Hutu genocide against the Tutsi, with survivors and perpetrators of the genocide coming together to commemorate and reflect on a crime against humanity that rocked a nation and, indeed, the world.

In a three-month killing spree that began on April 7, 1994, extremist Hutus murdered more than a million members of the Tutsi minority, as well as Hutus who refused to participate in the slaughter or tried to protect their Tutsi neighbors.

But how do these traumatic events continue to affect those who weren't even born then? 

How the Rwandan genocide unfolded

When making friends is a minefield

Rwanda's young generation, which makes up a large part of the population today, did not experience the genocide first-hand. Most of what young people know they have heard from others or learned at school.

But many say they are still troubled by the issue.

"It is my duty and my responsibility to respect every single moment of the commemoration of the genocide against the Tutsi," Francis Mugisha, 19, told DW in Kigali.

"And secondly, as a Rwandan, I feel concerned about everything happening in my country, so I take it not only as a responsibility but as something like something I should live with, something I should socialize with," he explained.

But how does one "socialize" with the demons of the past?

For Emmanuel Ishimwe, 30, this question is to be understood quite literally. He told DW that the act of socialzing with new people and making friends can be tricky.

"Some may choose friends based on ethnicity but will not openly show or say it," he said, adding that people often had to tread carefully along ethnic lines — lest they be perceived as sectarian.

He stressed that personally, he did not "think ethnicity plays a role because we now understand that we are all Rwandans," but said that not everybody agreed with that assessment.

Healing Rwanda's mental health

Genocide studies in school

Reports of ethnic divisions still being perpetuated even among young people have repeatedly made headlines in Rwanda throughout the past three decades. Just last year, there was a discovery of hate speech messages scribbled on blackboards and washrooms in various schools.

This is despite the fact that the government had long introduced genocide studies as a mandatory subject in high schools in the hope of promoting unity.

Freddy Mutanguha, a former vice president of IBUKA, an umbrella group of Rwandan genocide survivors, told DW that it was "incomprehensible" to see certain people being so divisive.

"The young generation is the future of this country," Mutanguha explained, adding that the introduction of genocide studies was supposed to counteract such polarizing currents.

A survivor of the genocide himself, Mutanguha advocates bringing Tutsis and Hutus together in constructive ways, focusing on dialogue and remembrance.

Colonial roots of the genocide in Rwanda

Is there enough guidance?

But the problem often starts at home already. Despite Rwanda's many efforts to foster unity and reconciliation, there remains a cloud of silence in many families when it comes to the past. 

"Some parents don't want to explain to their children what happened in 1994. That means most children hear about the genocide only during the commemoration period," Ishimwe told DW, highlighting that this was partly why he feels he lacks the skillset to address issues such as ethnicity competently.

Others said that what they learn might be too little, too late — or even too much, but too late: 27-year-old Christian Nshimiyimana told DW that he only grasped the full extent of the genocide that took place in his country when he was 16.

"From the discussions I heard from my family and friends, I think the youth need to be taught more about the country's history and the genocide that happened in Rwanda," he said, adding that there was a real danger that the ideology that had led to the genocide still existed and that it could result in renewed violence since it was being treated as such a taboo.

A new Rwanda?

Most Rwandan adolescents, meanwhile, say they want to put Rwanda's dark history behind them and build a new country where all ethnic groups can live together.

This is also how President Paul Kagame wants Rwanda to be seen by the outside world: as a united nation where Hutus and Tutsis live together in peace, where there is a flourishing economy, where the streets are always clean, and where Rwanda is opening up to the world.

But in many instances, only Kagame's heavily manicured version of historical and current events is tolerated, as dissident voices in the country are increasingly being muted.

Instead of uniting behind this new national identity, some young people feel they have lost any sense of identity in Kagame's Rwanda while still being haunted by the ghosts of the past and fear that this does not bode well for the future.

Edited by: Sertan Sanderson